Sir David Attenborough found himself in a bit of hot water last week, water being the nub of the problem. He presented two programmes on BBC Radio that examined the possibility that the reasons we are so different to the other apes (bipedal, hairless, larger brains) was a result of evolutionary adaptations to an aquatic environment. (You can listen to the programmes here if you’re interested). He stated that this theory, which goes back some 50/60 years had initially been dismissed out of hand, but that it was gaining in credence and may one day gain acceptance over the current view that it was adaptation to leaving the trees and moving to the savannah that produced these changes.
Enter Dr Alice Roberts, who has presented her own programmes on human evolution for the BBC, to dismiss the programmes and bemoan the BBC’s decision to “indulge this implausible theory”. I enjoyed the programmes nevertheless and could see the appeal of the “aquatic ape”.
I may be biased of course. I lived on the shoreline or within half a mile for 20 years and initially turned to it to inspire my photography, buoyed by the ever-changing environment and the opportunities it presented to me. (Though only thirty minutes drive from the sea now I miss it enormously.) It seems I’m not alone for Attenborough quoted from a 2010 Columbia University report that suggested around half of the world’s population live within 60 miles of a shoreline. This is probably stronger evidence of a historical reliance on maritime trading than any primeval urge to return to the water of course.
All of this was on my mind as I ventured to a tiny village on the Northumberland coast called Low Hauxley, primarily to enjoy the beach, but also to seek photographic opportunity. The only other time I’ve walked these sands the tide was low and a vast expanse of beach was at my disposal, and so even though I knew that high tide was approaching I arrived hopeful of being relatively free to walk the beach. Wrong. There was already only a narrow strip left and even that was shrinking fast; as I set up to shoot Coquet Island in the distance I was having to move my backpack to higher ground and ensure that my tripod was on one of the few areas where rock gave stability. Nevertheless I achieved my objective, and then set about practicing my macro focusing as the waves lapped at the high water seaweed deposits.
I was disappointed not to be able to progress south because I wanted to check out a peculiarity of the area that creates a very special environment. An inland path just behind the low cliffs provided a solution and took me to the top of those cliffs, passing a nature reserve and finding a little wildlife along the way too.
A mile or so later and I found the cliffs – unique because they are made of peat, and so consequently very fragile. When the tide conditions are right (not today) the sands will sometimes recede to reveal footprints in the organic black surface beneath, though due to that fragility they will eventually be lost to the sea.
The footprints are those of humans and animals and are thought to be 7000 years old.
Hardly evolutionary timescales, but man’s love of the sea still has history.